Unionville student wins Microsoft competition

Shea thanks community support that will help her go to Africa next month


Meghan Shea, a 2013 Unionville High School graduate, shares a moment with some of the Pocopson Elementary School students who helped out with her video. That video entry made Shea one of five finalists for the Microsoft YouthSpark for Change contest — meaning she will be headed to Kenya next month.

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times
Working for months at a time, Meghan Shea had to rely on research and the Internet to get a sense of what life was like in Africa, as she refined her work on a simple, portable water filtration system.

That work led to her being named one of 40 national finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search and gave her a chance to meet President Barack Obama.

But now, the 2013 Unionville High School graduate will be able to learn first-hand about Africa, as she discovered Tuesday, as one of five winners of Microsoft’s YouthSpark Challenge for Change. Shea’s entry, Minds (to) Matter, would help teach elementary and middle school students about the scientific method and how to improve their research options.

As one the five finalists, Shea wins a bunch of cool tech gear from Microsoft as well as a three-week trip to Kenya in August and $2,500 to implement her idea.

As part of her entry presentation, Shea recorded a video with students from Pocopson Elementary School and Patton Middle School in May shot with the help of fellow Unionville grads Adam Carl and Alan Dembek, already award-winning filmmakers in their own right.
Upon being named one of 20 national finalists, Shea needed the support of friends, family and the Unionville community — and she got it in droves, as the winners were decided by online voting. Thanks to social media, much of the local community stepped in to support her entry.

“That was so exciting,” said Shea, a Birmingham resident and the daughter of Kathleen Brady Shea, The Times‘ managing editor, the younger Shea saying she was “incredibly thankful” for all of the support from the greater Unionville community.

Although the news of being one of the five finalists was still too new for her have concrete plans for the grant money, she said she expects to split it between Palo Alto, Calif. where she will begin attending Stanford University in September, and the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District.

Better, she said, by seeing conditions on the ground in Africa, she will improve her understanding of village life and what will work — and what won’t — as she works to refine her water filtration system.

“Hopefully, I’ll be able to get a sense of the water culture in Kenya,” she said, noting that in conversation with two other other finalists, she discovered they already had first-hand experience in other parts of Africa, and she hopes to mine their experiences to better inform her ongoing work. “Going to Africa has been on my bucket list.”

Because of the tech nature of the company — Microsoft — Shea said that the five winners will have Wi-Fi Internet access during the trip and will be able to blog, shoot videos, and in-general send constant updates back home, via their Windows Phone 8 and Surface tablet computers. An avid photographer — and former co-editor of the Unionville High School newspaper, The Indian Post — she expects to upload photos, text and maybe even videos as she journeys across Kenya.

With everything that has happened this year, Shea said, it’s been a bit much to digest at times.

“It’s crazy,” she said. “If you asked me about any of this a year ago, I would have said ‘no way.’ “

Shea will also get to spend the next year as an Ambassador for the YouthSpark program, while settling into her freshman year at Stanford.

When asked about whether this run of awards and notoriety puts additional pressure on her to achieve, she said she doesn’t think so.

“I really don’t think it increases the pressure,” she said. “I’m just really happy that so many things that I put time and effort into were successful. Believe me, though, there were a number of things that didn’t work out, too.”

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  1. Dave Lichter says:

    Congratulations, Meghan!! I am so glad that you won. Could not have happened to a more deserving person! Have fun in Kenya!!

    • Congratulations Meghan. We look forward to following your blog and hearing more about your experiences as this project comes to reality. Having fresh clean water is a world wide issue. You are a spark of hope for millions who struggle to find potable water every day.

  2. Carolyn Harkins says:

    Beyond proud of your accomplishments! Set the world on fire!!

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